A three-dimensional computer simulation of feeding behaviour in red and giant pandas relates skull biomechanics with dietary niche partitioning
The red (Ailurus fulgens) and giant (Ailuropoda melanoleuca) pandas are mammalian carnivores convergently adapted to a bamboo feeding diet. However, whereas Ailurus forages almost entirely on younger leaves, fruits and tender trunks, Ailuropoda relies more on trunks and stems. Such difference in foraging mode is considered a strategy for resource partitioning where they are sympatric. Here, we use finite-element analysis to test for mechanical differences and similarities in skull performance between Ailurus and Ailuropoda related to diet. Feeding simulations suggest that the two panda species have similar ranges of mechanical efficiency and strain energy profiles across the dentition, reflecting their durophagous diet. However, the stress distributions and peaks in the skulls of Ailurus and Ailuropoda are remarkably different for biting at all tooth locations. Although the skull of Ailuropoda is capable of resisting higher stresses than the skull of Ailurus, the latter is able to distribute stresses more evenly throughout the skull. These differences in skull biomechanics reflect their distinct bamboo feeding preferences. Ailurus uses repetitive chewing in an extended mastication to feed on soft leaves, and Ailuropoda exhibits shorter and more discrete periods of chomp-and-swallow feeding to break down hard bamboo trunks.